By Susan Montoya Bryan

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- The New Mexico Environment Department is suing Houston-based Marathon Oil Corp. ( MRO) over thousands of alleged air emissions violations at its plant in southeastern New Mexico.

The department accuses Marathon of violating its permit and the state Air Quality Control Act. The lawsuit encompasses more than 4,000 alleged violations that stem from the operation of Marathon's Indian Basin natural gas processing plant west of Carlsbad.

Environment Department Secretary Ron Curry said Marathon has put air quality and the health of local residents at risk by failing to properly operate and calibrate required emission control equipment.

"Operating a gas plant without calibrating your monitors is like driving a car with a broken speedometer. You don't know to what extent you are putting the welfare of others at risk," Curry said in a statement.

The 23-page lawsuit was filed Friday in district court in Santa Fe.

Lee Warren, a spokeswoman for Marathon, said the company was disappointed with the state's action. She said compliance issues raised in the complaint have been addressed and that Marathon's commitment to corporate responsibility and to the environment is of the utmost importance.

"We're firmly committed to conducting our operations responsibly and in a manner that protects and preserves the environment," she said.

According to the Environment Department, the Indian Basin plant is considered a major source of air pollution and is required to meet strict air emissions limits to protect air quality and human health.

The lawsuit lists excess emission violations during at least 191 flaring events and more than 2,000 violations for failing to maintain proper calibration of required emission control equipment.

The lawsuit also accuses Marathon of violating sulfur dioxide and sulfur emission limits and failing to comply with required standards for storage of volatile organic liquids.

Under state law, each violation can be punishable with a civil penalty of up to $15,000 per day.

Warren called the fines "overtly excessive" and argued that Marathon already has addressed the alleged violations, including concerns over calibration, by making operational changes at the plant and manually checking emissions systems on a weekly basis.

"There was no evidence of exceedences or impacts to the environment," Warren said.

The state said the lawsuit was a result of failed negotiations with Marathon over a notice of violation that was issued in 2008.

Warren acknowledged that Marathon had been working with the department for some time to address the alleged violations and that the process was "very long and burdensome with undue delays."

However, Warren and Curry both said they would be willing to work together to resolve the matter.
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